John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: What We Don't Need to Know

From a religious pluralist perspective, there is a lot we don’t know. We don’t have Divine Scriptures which give us infallible knowledge. We don’t know why the universe exists. We don’t know how it will be in the end. We can compare and contrast the myths and hopes from the world’s religious traditions, but all we are left with is speculation.

That’s a hard reality for a lot of people, especially traditionally religious people, to live with. For those growing up in conservative strands of their faith, they are used to having something approaching certainty, at least regarding core matters of belief. As I document in The Evangelical Experience, the move away from this type of thinking can be dramatic, a ripping apart of a worldview on which one has built their life.

But from a religious pluralist view, and as Hick argues toward the end of his work, we really don’t need to know these things.

”According to the world religions we exist not only within our familiar natural environment but also within a supra-natural environment. As we saw earlier, because of its value-laden character we are able, as free personal beings, to shut this out of our consciousness. But even when we allow the fifth dimension of reality to enter our experience, much remains utterly mysterious to us. Going beyond questions about the origin and structure of the physical universe, we do not know what happens to us after death. All that we know, if our big picture is basically correct, is that nothing good that has been created in human life will ever be lost. But although we have guesses, hunches, theories about that fulfilment, we are very probably (as the Buddha suggested) incapable at present of conceiving its nature. We do not know how the sufferings and sorrows of life, the agonies and despairs, can become steps on a long journey leading eventually to that fulfilment, as they will if the cosmic optimism of the world religions is justified. We have our theories, but they are only theories. However we do not need at this stage of our existence to know the solution to these mysteries. To become aware of the divine reality here and now by awakening to the fifth dimension of our own being is to begin to live in trust, trust in the (from our human point of view) friendly, serendipitous character of the vast process of the universe. This is not a faith wherein no harm can befall us in this present life, or those we love, but a faith that ultimately, in Lady Julian’s words, ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.

Notice that the ‘conflicting truth-claims’ of the different religions are concerned with questions to which, if we are entirely honest, we all know that we do not know the answers! Pretending however to knowledge that they cannot have, some traditions and sub-traditions affirm as certain that the universe began through an act of divine creation out of nothing, others that it is a divine emanation, yet others that it is a beginningless and endless process. Again, some affirm that at death we are translated to heaven or hell or purgatory, others that we live again many times on earth or in other spheres of existence. Some affirm the eventual perfecting of the individual ego, others an eventual transcendence of ego-existence in union with the divine reality. Some affirm that all human souls will reach the final fulfilment, others that only a fortunate minority will. But if we can accept that these are speculations, we both allow others to have their own different speculations, and are also freed to apply critical intelligence to them all. This involves a downgrading of religious dogmas to a less than absolute status. Here there is, once again, a thought-provoking teaching of the Buddha, that religious doctrines are not ends in themselves but are ‘skilful means’ (upaya) to aid us on our way to enlightenment. As such they will sooner or later have served their purpose and should be discarded. He told the parable of the raft, in which a traveller comes to a wide stretch of water. The side he is on is dangerous, but the other side is safe. However there is no bridge or boat. So he collects grass, sticks and branches to make a raft, and crosses to the other side. Because the raft has been so useful, he lifts it onto his head and carries it with him. But, says the Buddha, he should leave it behind. It has served its purpose and now can only be a hindrance. ‘You, O monks, who understand the Teaching’s similitude to a raft, you should let go even of good teachings, how much more of false ones.’”

What we really need to know is how to live. And on this, the religions, at least in general principle, seem to all agree.

”What we need to know is how to live here and now. And it is noticeable that whereas the metaphysical questions about which we can only speculate divide the religions, their basic moral principles unite them. I am speaking here of their basic ethical teachings, not of the detailed codes that have been created within different societies at different times and in different cultural, economic, political and climatic circumstances. These inevitably reflect those circumstances and should be allowed to change as the circumstances change. But because these commandments are usually embodied in sacred scriptures, it is very difficult to revise them, and more often they are officially retained whilst being in practice reinterpreted. And even this process of making them mean something other than what they say is usually a generation or more behind the change of moral outlook that has prompted the reinterpretation. In contrast to this, it is the basic teaching of all the world religions that we should behave towards others as we would wish others to behave towards us. This has appealed to the human conscience in every part of the world and in every generation: ‘One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to oneself’ (the Hindu Mahabharata, Anushana parva, 113: 7); One should go about ‘treating all creatures in the world as he himself would be treated’ (the Jain Kritanga Sutra, I, 11: 33); ‘As a mother cares for her son, all her days, so towards all living things a man’s mind should be all-embracing’ (the Buddhist Sutta Nipata, 149); ‘Do not do to others what you would not like yourself’ (the Analects of Confucius, XII: 2); A good man should ‘regard others’ gains as if they were his own, and their losses in the same way’ (the Taoist Thai Shang, 3); ‘That nature only is good when it shall not do to unto another whatever is not good for its own self’ (The Zoroastrian Dadistan-i-dinik, 94: 5); ‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise’ (Jesus in Luke 6: 31); ‘What is hateful to yourself do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah’ (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 31a); ‘No man is a true believer unless he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself’ (Muhammad in the Hadith Ibn Madja, Introduction, 9); ‘Lay not on any soul a load which ye would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things ye would not desire for yourselves’ (the Bahá’í Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, 66, 127); and going behind the post-axial faiths to ‘primal’ religion, ‘Grandfather Great Spirit, all over the world the faces of living ones are alike. With tenderness they have come up out of the ground. Give us the strength to understand, and the eyes to see. Teach us to walk the soft Earth as relatives to all that live’ (Sioux prayer, in Roberts, p. 184). This is the common moral outlook of the great traditions.”

I would add that we need methods of becoming people who actually live, naturally and from the deepest place of our being, how we know we are supposed to live. That is, in my view, where the contemplative practices come in.

But if one adopts a religious pluralist perspective, they need to be comfortable not knowing many things.